At 131-feet in length, the helicopter landing trainer Baylander (IX-514) has been billed as the “smallest aircraft carrier” in the US Navy, if not the world, by the Navy itself, its current owners the Trenk Family Foundation, and, well, me. That claim is based on the more than 10,000 helicopter landings on the Baylander between 1986 and its retirement in 2014. But what if you want the smallest ship to regularly launch its own aircraft?
The November 1963 issue of Navy magazine All Hands crowned the 206-foot USS Targeteer (YV-3) as the fleet’s “smallest aircraft carrier.” A Drone Aircraft Catapult Ship, the Targeteer was equipped to launch and recover target drones used for gunnery practice by the fleet. The third Landing Ship, Medium (LSM) to be converted into a drone launching ship, the Targeteer was based in San Diego from 1961 to 1968, replacing the USS Launcher (YV-2, 1954–1960) and the USS Catapult (YV-1).
Even Targeteer‘s claim, though, is contested. The Executive Officer of the fleet tug USS Kalmia (ATA-184), which also launched and recovered drones at San Diego, wrote to All Hands to claim that its length of 143 feet entitled it to the title of “smallest aircraft carrier.” (All Hands deferred to the Navy’s official classifications. The Targeteer was a Drone Aircraft Catapult Ship, the Kalmia just an Auxiliary Ocean Tug.)
All three claims are weak if you are looking for a ship that launches and retrieves multiple aircraft. If, on the other hand, you are looking for the smallest Navy-crewed vessel which could land or launch a single aircraft, Baylander, Targeteer, and Kalmia all lose to the helicopter pad-equipped “Tango boats” of the Mobile Riverine Force in Vietnam. Officially designated Armored Troop Carriers (ATC)s, these were Landing Craft, Mechanized (LCM) that were modified to serve as floating armoured personnel carriers in the Mekong Delta. Some were further modified with a steel flight deck on top that ran pretty much the full length of the boat. The first helicopter landing on one of these Armored Troop Carrier (Helicopter), or ATC(H)s, took place on July 4, 1967. At 56-feet in length, which is more or less the length of a Huey helicopter, I doubt I’ll find anything smaller to claim the title.